Royal Free faces criticism for sharing patient data with Google

The application sends alerts and results directly to the clinician's smartphone.

The application sends alerts and results directly to the clinician's smartphone. - Credit: Archant

The Royal Free NHS Trust has defended its decision to share the medical records of 1.6 million patients with Google whilst piloting a new healthcare application.

The collaboration, announced in February, has been accused of not fully disclosing the nature of the agreement with web giant Google.

The application is called Streams and has been designed, by both Google DeepMind and clinicians, to improve the detection of Acute Kidney Injury (AKI), which affects over one in six in-patients.

A New Scientist report suggested DeepMind - an artificial intelligence company acquired by Google in 2014 - “has plans for a lot more” than enabling early diagnosis of kidney problems because it has access to all medical information.

This accusation was sparked after the data sharing agreement between Google and the Royal Free was published, revealing the application has access to five years of medical history as well as A&E visits, inpatient visits and pathology results.

But Google and The Royal Free explained to the Ham&High that, in order to detect AKI, clinicians need access to a wide range of medical information.

Dominic King, senior clinician scientist at DeepMind said: “Access to timely and relevant clinical data is essential for doctors and nurses looking for signs of patient deterioration. This work focuses on acute kidney injuries that contribute to 40,000 deaths a year in the UK, many of which are preventable. To generate these alerts it is necessary for us to look at a range of tests taken at different times.”

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Privacy campaigners fear this puts patients at risk of a confidentiality breach, but a Google spokeswoman emphasised that patient data is encrypted, not shared with any other part of Google, and stored separately in the UK.

She added that Google had the highest level of information governance approval - higher than that of most NHS trusts.

In addition, the data sharing contract is no different to similar data sharing agreements between NHS trusts and third party service providers all over the country - for example patient record database Cerner.

The pilot came about after the Royal Free approached DeepMind with plans to codevelop the app, which works by sending results and alerts about high-risk patients to the clinicians’ smartphone.

There is no commercial agreement and after it ends in 2017, Google will have to destroy all records.

A trust spokesman said: “The Royal Free London provides DeepMind with NHS patient data in accordance with strict information governance rules and for the purpose of direct clinical care only.

“No patient-identifiable data is shared with DeepMind. All information sent to and processed by DeepMind is encrypted and is only decrypted once returned to the clinician’s device.”

Following the Caldicott Information Governance Review in 2013 - carried out to establish a balance between patient protection and the use of medical data to improve healthcare - health authorities rely on “implied consent” with sharing patient data.

The spokesman added: “As with all information sharing agreements with non-NHS organisations, patients can opt out of any data-sharing system that the Royal Free London uses by contacting the trust’s data protection officer.”

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